“There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge’.”
Harsh? Maybe. But true nonetheless. That paragraph is a key excerpt from an essay penned by famed science fiction author Isaac Asimov. Published in a 1980 edition of Newsweek magazine, Asimov was expressing his disgust at the growing lack of respect for education in America. Then, just as now, a populist movement was exploited by politicians and others of power to brand the more well-informed among us as “elitist”. That word, Asimov wrote, was used to brand as untrustworthy “anyone who admires competence, knowledge, learning and skill, and who wishes to spread it around.”
As an accomplished writer – educated in biochemistry, in which he earned a Ph.D. – Asimov was not one to tolerate willful ignorance. He saw education as both a necessity and an object of desire. After all, why would we choose to be ignorant of the world around us when knowledge is available at our fingertips?
Sadly, millions of us are perfectly fine with being told what to think. It’s easier to be led around like livestock than to invest time and energy into learning the difference between fact and falsehood.
The numbers game continues
A month ago in this column, I pointed out the undeniable fact that over 3,000 Americans had died as a result of contracting the COVID-19 virus. Today, despite urgings from medical professionals and clear-thinking political leaders to limit close personal contact, that death toll has skyrocketed to over 70,000 with about 1.25 million confirmed cases nationwide. As I wrote this column, predictions from the president’s own administration point to the virus claiming at least 100,000 lives in the USA, although that seems a low estimate considering the rapid spread of the disease.
Further complicating the fight against the pandemic are the rising calls by many who want an immediate end to restrictions imposed by their local and state governments. They want all limits reversed, opening up all businesses and resuming all activities that we are used to enjoying.
The problem, however, is that the spread of COVID-19 has intensified despite those restraints. It doesn’t take much effort to consider how much greater the numbers of victims would be if controls had not been mandated.
And yet, we see protests in large metro areas and small towns. People marching in the streets, demanding that all restrictions be lifted at once. As much as I find it disturbing to see my fellow Americans storming government buildings waving signs and weapons, none of those events are surprising. We’ve come to expect seeing angry crowds finding any excuse to use threatening words and actions, even more so if they know the television cameras will be there.
To many in those mobs, nothing matters except their own selfish desires. I’ve watched grown men scream in the faces of nurses and police officers. I’ve heard grown women cussing a blue streak because they wanted a haircut and a manicure. Really? People of all ages are dying at a rate far greater than anything we’ve seen in our lifetimes, and all you can think about is getting frosted tips and gel nails?
Sure, local economies have suffered. Unfortunately, many businesses have shut down permanently and others will likely follow. Such is to be expected in a situation like this. We can and we will see things return to normal one day, but it won’t come overnight.
Listen to those who know
Our top leaders have failed us. They ignored the early warning signs, rejected advice and assistance from professionals, and sat idly by rather than taking action. Then, as the virus took hold, they tried to blame everything on their enemies and predecessors. And, thanks to media outlets that specialize in propaganda, the pandemic is seen by many as a political football rather than a health crisis.
Preachers and pundits are pushing conspiracy theories, telling their eager audiences that this is all “fake news”. But if we take the time to think, if we ignore the politicians’ smoke and mirrors and focus on what the experts say, we can and will make personal decisions that bring healthy outcomes.
Don’t be afraid to learn.
In his essay’s conclusion, Asimov longed for an America that stopped thumbing its nose at knowledge:
“I believe that every human being with a physically normal brain can learn a great deal and can be surprisingly intellectual. I believe that what we badly need is social approval of learning and social rewards for learning.”
Unfortunately, we are no closer to Asimov’s dream than we were forty years ago. In many ways, we are losing ground. Too many of us put our trust in foolishness, even when the facts are as plain as the nose on your face.
(Originally published in the May 7, 2020 edition of the Morrisons Cove Herald.)